Walt Disney Animation Studios is the most famous, important, and successful animated film studio in history. Its first movie, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs, was the first ever feature-length animation. Its latest movie, Zootopia, captivated critics and broke box office records. (It was a touching film with catchy music, and I loved it.)
Walt Disney Animation Studios gave us such enduring classics as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King… and also The Hunchback of Notre Dame, a movie I still can’t believe was actually made and distributed by Disney. It’s dark.
It’s really dark.
The Hunchback of Notre Dame is not only grim, but brilliant: a daring film with pathos, beauty, and gleams of humor. That said, it really doesn’t fit Disney’s kid-friendly image. The movie begins with a corrupt official (one of my favorite Disney villains) pursuing and murdering a woman in front of a church, and then almost murdering her baby.
A tense song narrates the scene, and throws in some vengeful Latin lyrics for good measure: Dies irae, dies illa solvet saeclum in favilla (Day of wrath, that day shall consume the world in ashes). The video above is a dark rock cover of this song. It’s a little edgier than the original… but only a little. A few notes foreshadow another song in the film, “Hellfire,” which is exactly as cheerful as it sounds; its lyrics describe unfulfilled sexual desire, murderous intentions, and literal hell.
After that first scene, The Hunchback of Notre Dame—which, I remind you, is an animated movie by Disney for kids—goes on to address such family-friendly subjects as physical deformity, child maltreatment, lust, genocide, and eternal damnation. I’m serious. I haven’t even mentioned all the creepy statues and gloomy Gothic imagery.
This is a dark film, and it becomes even darker if the viewer chooses a cynical view of the protagonist’s gargoyle friends. These statues come to life when nobody else is around, like Hobbes in the Calvin and Hobbes comic strip, bringing Quasimodo comfort and hope.
Sure, there are optimistic explanations. Maybe these lively gargoyles are just imaginary friends, or perhaps God brings them to life as companions for Quasimodo. He does live in a church, after all, and the film is underscored by religious themes and imagery.
However, a cynical viewer might dismiss Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends as hallucinations: symptoms of psychosis, or his deranged way of coping with the horrors of his lonely life. This theory is unlikely, but given the other grotesque subjects in the film, it wouldn’t be hard to add mental illness to the list.
So yes, The Hunchback of Notre Dame is a dark film, and also a really good one. I recommend it… but probably not if you’re a kid.
On a more cheerful note, the guy who arranged the cover of “The Bells of Notre Dame” in the video above has done some other great covers, including “I’ll Make a Man Out of You” (because no blog can ever have enough covers of that song) and “The Hero,” the epic theme to One Punch Man.